April 7, 2005
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In a historical step, bus passengers have crossed the border separating Pakistani- and Indian-controlled Kashmir. Indian Prime Minister Manmohan Singh launched the first buses making the journey. However, tensions were high along the route because of threats of attacks by Islamic militants.
A brass band played as two buses, draped in orange marigolds, pulled out of a cricket pitch in Srinagar early Thursday, starting their journey to the border with Pakistan-controlled Kashmir. Prime Minister Manmohan Singh waved a blue flag at the buses, which he called a "caravan of peace."
Mr. Singh also praised his counterpart, Pakistani President Pervez Musharraf for helping to make the historic bus link possible.
He said the bus link is the result of the efforts of both India and Pakistan to resolve the Kashmir issue peacefully. He says both countries have respected the sentiments and aspirations of their people.
The bus carrying passengers from Muzaffarabad, the capital of Pakistani-held Kashmir, was the first to reach the Line of Control, which divides the region. There the passengers disembarked, crossed into India, where they were greeted with music and flowers, then climbed onto buses to carry them to relatives they have not seen in years.
It is the first time that civilians have been permitted to cross the line, which has divided Kashmir since 1947, when India and Pakistan won independence from colonial ruler Britain.
Pakistan and India have fought three wars since then - two over Kashmir. The bus link to reunite divided families is the latest in a series of measures designed to ease tensions between them.
India has accused Pakistan of supporting Islamic militants who have waged an insurgency since 1989 to win the Kashmir's independence or to merge the Indian portion with predominantly Muslim Pakistan. Pakistan denies the allegations.
On Thursday, Prime Minister Singh called for India and Pakistan to work together to stop the violence. Mr. Singh said India is ready to hold hands with Pakistan to create a peace for their people - especially the people of Kashmir.
Despite the fanfare surrounding the buses' departure, some people are cautious about their importance. Mirwaz Omar Farooq, the head of the Kashmiri separatist organization, the All Parties Hurriyat Conference, wants India and Pakistan to come up with a road-map to chart the future of the peace process.
"We cannot view the bus in isolation," he said. "We have to understand the fact that all these measures would bear fruit only if they're coupled with political initiatives on both the sides."
Indian forces are on high alert along the 170 kilometer route the buses take to the Line of Control. A grenade exploded near the buses earlier Thursday, but incident was an accidental firing by security forces.
After repeated threats against the bus, on Wednesday, militants launched a brazen attack on the government building in Srinagar where many of the 24 passengers were staying. None were injured.